ST. CHARLES — When I visited St. Charles West High School, a topic came up that I had completely overlooked: Many teachers told me they had at least one student in their classes who is homeless. They also said many of their students would rather go hungry in the school's large and well-stocked cafeteria because they don't want classmates to know that they receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Maybe these trends shouldn't have shaken me — I was likely taken aback because I hadn't even considered the situation homeless students in public schools face. But it seemed to be an anomaly, given what I know about the county (I lived there for about seven years).
St. Charles is a relatively affluent part of Missouri: It consistently ranks among the fastest-growing counties in the country (a trend that has continued for the past 25 years or so), and its approximate median household income was $70,331 from 2006 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To put that in perspective, Missouri’s median household income over the same period was $46,262.
Teachers at St. Charles West, however, painted a different picture. Growing businesses, investment in infrastructure and subdivisions popping up in every open corner of the county were out of the frame. Instead, I heard stories of an ever-increasing number of students who qualified for free and reduced lunches. One story involved an unnamed student who was about to switch schools within the district — a move he'd made a few times before — because his family could no longer afford to stay in a nearby hotel.
What threw me for a loop were the numbers I found when I looked at statewide rates of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. While Missouri overall has 42 percent of its public school students enrolled in the program, St. Charles had one of the lowest rates in the state, at just under 16 percent.
Students whose household incomes are below 130 percent of the poverty line qualify for free lunches. If their household incomes are below 185 percent of the poverty line, they qualify for reduced-price lunches. The federal poverty level now stands at $22,050 a year for a family of four. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on poverty thresholds for families of different sizes.
Is St. Charles West an outlier in the county? Or is the growth in the rate of students who need free and reduced lunches simply relative to what the school has experienced in the past?
Further, what are the psychological and physical health implications of remaining silent about not having enough money to purchase food?
As I ate lunch with some teachers in their lounge, they told me the students they knew whose families were struggling financially didn't speak up during my conversations with their classes, in which we talked about students future hopes and their version of the American Dream. Poorer students never said anything, the teachers noted; they didn't want their peers to judge them based on their families' financial circumstances.
The majority of students recognized the sometimes bitter climate inside high schools where status is everything: The right clothes, accessories and brand labels mark some as successful and others as failures, the students said. One senior called it the "unfortunate reality" of being a teenager.
My concern was, and continues to be, that those students' voices aren't heard — certainly not during one-time conversations such as the ones I had, not in the classroom, maybe not even in the counselor's office. They fit into the larger puzzle of figuring out how high school students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, handle the typecasting among their peers. Has it gotten worse with time because students have so many more outlets to compare their lives to those of their classmates?
This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.